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History of Outdoor Advertising


Outdoor advertising can trace its lineage back to the earliest civilizations. Thousands of years ago, the Egyptians employed a tall stone obelisk to publicize laws and treaties. While formats have certainly changed and as advertising ideas have evolved, outdoor is still here.


Early Stages

  • In 1450, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type printing, and advertising in the modern sense was launched in the form of the handbill.

  • When the lithographic process was perfected in 1796, the illustrated poster became a reality.

  • Gradually, measures were taken to ensure exposure of a message for a fixed period of time. In order to offer more desirable locations where traffic was heavy, bill posters began to erect their own structures.



U.S. Billboard Origins In 1830’s

  • The large American outdoor poster (more than 50 square feet) originated in New York in Jared Bell’s office where he printed posters for the circus in 1835.

  • In the beginning, American roadside advertising was generally local. Merchants painted signs or glued posters on walls and fences to notify the passersby that their establishments up the road sold horse blankets, rheumatism pills, etc.

  • In 1850, exterior advertising was first used on street railways.


First Association in the 1870’s

  • The earliest recorded leasings of boards occurred in the U.S. in 1867.

  • By 1870 close to 300 small sign-painting and bill posting companies existed.

  • In 1872, the International Bill Posters’ Association of North America was formed in St. Louis.


National Association in the 1890’s

  • In 1891 the Associated Bill Posters’ Association of the US and Canada was formed in Chicago. The name was later changed to the Outdoor Advertising Association of America. Their purpose:

          - To promote a greater understanding of the poster medium.

          - To provide an expanded nationwide organization for coordinating the services offered by member


          - To continue to address the ethical concerns of early industry leaders.


  • Michigan formed the first state bill posters association in 1871, followed by Indiana, New York, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin, all of which had active state associations by 1891.



Standardization in 1900

  • In 1900, a standardized billboard structure was created in America, and ushered in a boom in national billboard campaigns. Confident that the same ad would fit billboards from Connecticut to Kansas, big advertisers like Palmolive, Kellogg, and Coca-Cola began mass-producing billboards for the national market.

  • By 1912, standardized outdoor service was at the disposal of national advertisers in nearly every major urban center.

  • In 1913, the Association established an education committee which served to encourage the industry to donate public service advertising. The practice of filling "open boards" with public service messages has continued to this day. During periods of war, the industry has responded by taking upon itself a shared responsibility for mobilization. In peacetime, the concern has been for those causes that could generally improve society.

  • The National Outdoor Advertising Bureau (NOAB) was formed in 1915 to serve the outdoor advertising needs that advertising agencies had with their various clients and to regularly inspect the showings in the field.

  • In 1931 Outdoor Advertising, Inc. (OAI) was formed to sell the concept of outdoor advertising (later merged into OAAA).


Name Change to OAAA in 1925

  • In 1925 the Poster Advertising Association and the Painted Outdoor Advertising Association joined to become the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) combining the interests of posters and bulletins into one association.


  • In the mid-twenties, the outdoor advertising industry was at last generally accepted by the banking community. New York’s Outdoor Advertising Company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.


  • In 1925 the first major merger of outdoor advertising firms took place. The Fulton Group and the Cusack Co. combined to become the General Outdoor Advertising Company (GOA).


  • In February 1934, the industry established the Traffic Audit Bureau (TAB) to provide advertisers with data to determine outdoor audience size.


  • In 1958, Congress passed the first federal legislation to voluntarily control billboards along Interstate highways. The law was known as the Bonus Act because states were given bonus incentives to control signs.


  • In 1962, French outdoor company JC Decaux invented the bus stop shelter. A popular outdoor venue, shelters are built at no cost to municipalities and rely on ad revenue for their upkeep.


  • On October 22, 1965 the Highway Beautification Act was signed into law by President Johnson. It controlled billboards on Interstate and federal-aid primary highways by limiting billboards to commercial and industrial areas, and by requiring states to set size, lighting and spacing standards and requiring just compensation for removal of lawfully erected signs.


  • In 1972, tobacco advertising was banned on broadcast media – leaving print and outdoor as its most popular venues.

  • In 1975, the Institute of Outdoor Advertising (IOA – later the OAAA) developed a campaign to measure billboards’ effectiveness. The concept featured Shirley Cochran, the newly crowned Miss America, on billboards that were displayed across the country. Her name recognition soared 940% after the campaign.


  • Also in the 1970’s a group of billboard companies commissioned studies at MIT in the painting of bulletins by computer. This ultimately led to computer painting on vinyl which was advanced by Metromedia Technologies and Computer Image Systems.


  • In 1983, the industry took the San Diego anti-billboard ordinance all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The court held the ordinance to be unconstitutional.


1990's to the Present

  • Digital technology transformed the industry--hand-painted boards are replaced by computer-painted outdoor advertising formats. Outdoor companies offer an increasingly diverse selection of advertising formats including: bus shelters, transit and kiosks; airport advertising, mall displays and taxis.


  • In 1990, the State of California used outdoor for its state-wide anti-smoking campaign. OAAA limits placement of messages for products and services that cannot be sold to minors.


  • In 1991, OAAA celebrates its Centennial Convention in Washington, D.C.


  • In 1999, tobacco advertising is no longer allowed on outdoor.


  • In 2001, the OAAA National Convention scheduled for September 11-13 in New York was cancelled due to the events of September 11. This marked the first time an OAAA convention had ever been cancelled.


  • In 2002, Arbitron and Nielsen began testing the feasibility of developing outdoor ratings.  


  • In 2003, the OAAA and the TAB joined together to host the first combined National Convention. The event also included the 61st annual OBIE Awards presentation.

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